What Flavor is Your Funny Bone?

Humor researchers investigate sense of humor in many forms.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

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Humor researchers commonly fail to correlate individuals' personality with what those individuals find funny. But surely such a correlation exists, right? Doesn't it make sense that, for example, a psychopath would find pain and suffering to be funnier than a highly empathic person would?

Maybe. Of course, a lot of things that make intuitive sense or simply feel true are downright wrong. Waking sleepwalkers does not harm them, sugar does not make children hyperactive, vitamin C does not cure colds, toilets don't flush in different directions in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, the color red does not enrage bulls (in fact, they can't even see red), and washing your car will not make it rain. So how do we find out if a correlation exists at all? Maybe the problem lies in the methods of testing. Maybe it's a matter of figuring out an operational definition of what a sense of humor is in the first place.

Does having a sense of humor mean that (a) you make others laugh or (b) you are able to laugh? Either could be difficult to study empirically, especially when informed consent could make a participant too self-conscious about a natural-yet-social reaction. I love to laugh, and yet people who judge what I do and do not laugh at made me so self-conscious about it over my lifetime that they trained me out of laughing out loud at many of the things that amuse me, especially when I'm around those particular people. The response that tends to require the presence of others (humans do not laugh aloud much when by themselves) can revert to its baseline, private setting. Self-reflective assessment of one's own laughter interferes with the thing being studied, akin to how physicists found that any phenomenon being studied is altered by the observation.

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Is having a "good" sense of humor a matter of what you find funny? If you're only amused by inflicting pain upon others, most people would feel you don't have a good sense of humor, you're just a sadist. On the other hand, if you're never able to see the humor in anyone's discomfort, a lot of people would see your sense of humor as being too restrictive in a different way. 

What We Find Funny

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Online resources provided by the International Society for Humor Studies include a catalog of tests designed to assess a sense of humor. Topping the list are humor appreciation tests. 

On the different versions of Ruch's 3WD Test (Ruch, 1992), participants rate dozens of jokes and cartoons for funniness and aversiveness among three types of jokes:

  • incongruity-resolution (structure)
  • nonsense (structure)
  • sexual humor (content).

The Antioch Sense of Humor Inventory (Mindess et al. (1985). measures both humor appreciation and humor creation in ten categories:

  • nonsense
  • philosophical
  • social
  • sexual
  • hostile
  • ethnic
  • sick
  • scatological
  • male-demeaning
  • female-demeaning

Raymond Cattell of 16PF fame got in on humor assessment early, developing assessment which, being Cattell, he naturally sought to correlate with specific personality traits. (Cattell & Luborsky, 1947; Cattell & Tolleffson (1966). The IPAT Humor Test measures which jokes people find funnier along 13 dimensions:

  • introversionextraversion
  • dry writ—good-natured play
  • compensation—tough self-composure
  • flirtatious playfulness—gruesomeness
  • urbane pleasantness—hostile degradation
  • high anxiety—low anxiety
  • theatricalism—cold realism
  • light-hearted humor—ponderous humor
  • damaging retort—unexpected, "offbeat" humor
  • cheerful independence—mistreatment
  • anxious concern—evasion of responsibility
  • rebound against feminine aggression—scorn of ineffectual male
  • dullness—general intelligence

One of Cattell's earliest studies in this area yielded, through factor analysis, what appeared to be five personality factors associated with a sense of humor:

  • good-natured assurance
  • rebellious dominance
  • sex repression
  • passive derision
  • sophistication

How We Use Humor

The Humor Styles Questionnaire (Martin et al, 2003) examines how we use humor: Four main styles of the ways in which we use humor in our lives and what we get out of it. Two concern how we relate to others, either positively (affiliative) or negatively (aggressive), and the other two look at how we focus humor on ourselves, whether we use it to build ourselves up (self-enhancing) or tear ourselves down (self-defeating).

I took a version of that questionnaire that was listed at The Cut. The results say, "You have a mostly affiliative sense of humor." What's funny to me is that the obvious affiliative questions weren't the ones that really got my attention. It occurred to me that my score in the self-defeating dimension is probably fairly low. I'm not so keen to see others put themselves down excessively, which I suppose is a different manifestation of an affiliative drive. Self-effacing humor can be powerful and disarming, effective in lightening the situation, but when I see someone using it more than any other humor, I worry about what that might say about their self-esteem.

So what's your sense of humor like? What do you find funny?

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References

Cattell, R. B., & Luborsky, L. B. (1947). Personality factors in response to humor. Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 42(4), 402-421.

Cattell, R. B., & Tollefson (1966). The IPAT humor test of personality. Champaign, IL: Institute of Personality and Ability Testing.

Mindess, H., Miller, C., Turek, J., Bender, A., & Corbin, S. (1985). The Antioch humor test: Making sense of humor. New York, NY: Avon.

Ruch, W. (1992). Assessment of appreciation of humor: Studies with the 3WD humor test. In C. D.  Spielberger & J. N. Butcher (Eds.), Advances in personality assessment (Vol. 9, pp. 27-75). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.